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The Missile that Wasn't.

Misleading stories about North Korea fuel danger

On August 31, the State Department announced, without trace of doubt, that North Korea had launched a Taepo Dong-1 ballistic missile. It was an ominous report, and it heated up the growing rhetoric in Washington against the 1994 accord that had suspended that country's nuclear weapons program. Though the North Koreans insisted they had launched a satellite and not a missile, papers throughout the United States portrayed the North Korean claim as a kind of sinister footnote, an obviously pathological lie. Time magazine ran a story entitled Missile With a Message, which asserted flatly that "the Stalinist state has a dangerous new toy ... the Taepo Dong-1."

The day after the Time story appeared, the Pentagon ate crow and admitted the North Koreans had launched not a missile but a rocket carrying a satellite. The admission made for a big story in the Asian press. The Australian Financial Review described it as "embarrassing" and "much to the chagrin of America."

But in the United States, the Pentagon's reversal received far less attention than the original, misleading stories. While international papers correctly began referring to the "North Korean rocket," American papers almost uniformly called it a "missile carrying a satellite"--a far less accurate but much more menacing description.

No media outlet stood more intransigent than Business Week. A full six days after the Pentagon's admission, the magazine ran the story North Korea Plays a Scary Game of Chicken. The piece discussed, as if it were fact, North Korea's "firing of a missile over Japan." Making no reference to the Pentagon's statement, the story dismissed the question of whether the "missile [was] simply a satellite ... as the North Koreans insist."

The missile fiasco was the second time in two weeks the media had screwed up a major story on North Korea. The first was the "secret nuclear complex" supposedly exposed in a New York Times piece on August 17.

In early August, according to one State Department official I talked to, the Republicans leaked misleading intelligence information to The New York Times concerning a major North Korean construction project in Yong Byon. The subsequent story in The New York Times then quoted "unnamed intelligence analysts" who described thousands of North Korean workers "swarming" and "burrowing" into a mountain to build "a huge secret underground [nuclear] complex."

The complex seemed to grow more menacing with each story until The Wall Street Journal's editorial page described it as a "nuclear weapons facility."

But there was never any evidence that North Korea had designed the facility for either nuclear or military purposes. On August 18, the Pentagon admitted that much.

While the story about the North Korean "secret underground nuclear complex" appeared on the front page of most of the nation's biggest newspapers, the Pentagon's admission, as in the missile story, warranted nothing more than a virtually unnoticed A.P. wire story.

In both cases, the original, misleading stories continue to resonate dangerously. They risk eroding popular support for one of the most successful foreign policy initiatives to come out of the Clinton White House: the 1994 accord with North Korea. In that deal, North Korea agreed to end its nuclear weapons program in exchange for a pledge by the United States, South Korea, and Japan to build two light-water nuclear reactors for the country and to supply it with half a million tons of fuel oil until they are built.

At the end of the day, the Korean peninsula was saved from a potential nuclear attack by the United States, and the world was spared further nuclear proliferation by North Korea.

The reason the White House chose peace rather than war is probably based on North Korea's ability to shell Seoul into oblivion and the irreparable damage to U.S.-China relations that even a limited, non-nuclear air strike would cost. Nonetheless, the agreement came as a welcome surprise to many Korea-watchers. And the Administration has, by and large, maintained a policy of restraint as it continues to pursue four-party talks.

This rankles Republicans, who see North Korea (along with Cuba) as their last great Communist whipping boy. South Korea's December 1997 election of Kim Dae Jung, a democracy advocate and former political prisoner, did not sit well with Republicans, either. Many of them were longtime allies of Kim's rightwing predecessors and viewed Kim as a communist. Although Kim's economic policy has differed little from that of past Korean presidents, he made strides in relations with North Korea. He dared to come to the United States and tell reporters, "We have nothing to fear from North Korea." This from a man who was arrested and awaited execution by North Korean officials during the Korean War. It was a truly historic gesture.

In a speech before Congress, Kim urged the United States to move more vigorously to end the embargo against North Korea--a promise the United States made in the 1994 accord and has not kept. But Kim's plea backfired. Republican lawmakers scarcely masked their contempt for the suggestion that the embargo be eased. Kim returned home chastened. He said he would no longer interfere in what was a U.S. matter. Clinton, for his part, said the North Koreans would have to offer something before any talk of ending the embargo could begin.

Then they did just that. On June 16, just days after Kim's visit, North Korea admitted what everyone has known all along: It exports missile technology. Then it said it was willing to trade it all in.

"If the United States really wants to prevent our missile export, it should lift the economic embargo as early as possible and make a compensation for the losses to be caused by discontinued missile export," read a statement broadcast by Pyongyang's official mouthpiece, the Korean Broadcast Agency. "Our missile export is aimed at obtaining foreign money, which is what we need."

Asian papers cautiously read the statement as a sign the North was finally ready to bargain away its missile exports; the headline in the Bangkok Post was North Korea Offers Deal on Missiles. Though North Korea demanded compensation, it may have been only a bargaining chip. A simple easing of the embargo might have sufficed.

The State Department missed the boat on this one. It undermined the overture by issuing a statement calling the North Korean disclosure "irresponsible." And U.S. papers reported the North Korean statement as some kind of ominous threat.

The last thing in the world the White House wants is to invite charges of caving in to the world's last Stalinist state. But the Administration may have blown a chance to accept the biggest win-win deal in the history of our relations with North Korea.

Ending the embargo is a small price to pay for a safer world. The United States should take North Korea up on the offer if it's still on the table. With broad support for rapprochement in South Korea and with a leader willing to talk to the North Koreans, there has never been a better opportunity to end one of the world's most dangerous military standoffs.

And it might help if the U.S. media took time to get the story straight.

Bill Mesler is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer and former editor at the Seoul-based Korea Economic Journal.
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Title Annotation:U.S. media's coverage of North Korea's rocket launch
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Abstract
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 1998
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